As soon as I saw in movie this:

I could burn myself.

A child was saying it.I wondered why not 'might' has been used.Ask a question,'Could I burn myself?' A 'could' denotes surety while a 'might' does exactly opposite.

  • 3
    "A 'could' denotes surety" - actually, it does not. (If you wanted to indicate certainty, you would say "I will burn myself.") It has several meanings, but they all include a sense of possibility, but not certainty.
    – stangdon
    Jul 6 '16 at 15:12
  • 1
    I think it is simply omitting the word possibly. "I could burn myself." does sound correct. "I might burn myself" sounds formal, especially for a child. On the other hand, "I might/could burn myself" could be a threat that they are thinking of self-harm. It's all about context. Jul 6 '16 at 17:02

could is the past form of can although like several other modal verbs is often used even when no past context is implied.

could/can relate to ability to complete the action

I could run home, but I would rather walk

This indicates the speaker has the ability to run.

I could burn myself

In this case, this refers to the ability of the speaker to burn him/herself. Often for an ability like this, can/could implies a possible action rather than an intended action. Thus, depending on context this sentence would likely be interpreted as the speaker has the ability to be burnt through whatever they are doing, but that isn't certain nor necessarily intended.

Note: could/can does not require the resulting action is intentional. In the running example, running would be an intended action whereas burning would not (ordinarily) be an intended result.

  • I guess using might means if he wanted (or he had a bad luck), he was able to burn himself. Am I right?
    – Cardinal
    Jul 6 '16 at 14:33
  • 1
    might is possibility; it doesn't on its own indicate whether the result is intended or not.
    – eques
    Jul 6 '16 at 14:35
  • 1
    I might burn myself.This is also a correct one.Right? Jul 6 '16 at 15:11
  • 1
    Yes; that is also correct. Both are valid, but emphasize differently
    – eques
    Jul 6 '16 at 15:19
  • 2
    @AnubhavSingh Yes, "I might burn myself" is grammatically valid. There is overlap between "might" and "could" in this case, but they are not interchangable in all situations. Usually "might" is used when the burning would be accidental, but "could" also works here - "I don't like to cook because I'm so clumsy I might/could burn myself." You normally wouldn't use "might" when the meaning is that one would have the capability to burn themselves - "If I wanted to, I could burn myself to sterilize that wound." Jul 6 '16 at 15:19

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